How to write good legal information

Writing good legal information is hard. Finding a way of communicating what the law says so that people with limited legal knowledge can not only understand, but use it, is very tricky. Law for Life and the public legal information website it runs, Advicenow, has always been about improving the quality of law-related information aimed at the public. Over the last fourteen years we have developed and tested methods for producing genuinely effective information, and our work is known for being as helpful and user-friendly as possible. Now, with so many people having to self-help, it has never been more important that what you produce really works for people. Whether you are writing for a website, making an information film, or creating an app, these 10 golden rules will put you on the right road to creating something that is easy to use, empowering, and as helpful as it can be.

1.  Know your audience

For information to be useful, you need to have a good understanding of the needs and capabilities of your audience. How are they approaching this problem? What do they already know and not know? What do they feel confident and comfortable with, and what will worry the heck out of them? Check out relevant research, set up a focus group so you can ask the audience themselves, or ask people who work with them and know them well.

2.  Be clear what you are trying to achieve

It is rarely enough just to tell people about a law or process. You need to be clear how you expect the information to be used and what you want people to be able to do as a result of having used it. The most successful information has one clearly defined objective.

3.   Build it around the needs of your audience

Everything - from what form the info takes, to what is included and the language you use - should be based upon what will most help your audience.

4.   Make it easy to use

Wherever possible, use a structure that tells the audience what they need to know in the order that they need to know it. Don't just explain jargon, avoid it altogether unless it will genuinely help your audience to know it. Help readers find the information they need by using lots of headings, and make sure that they are unambiguous.

5.    Include only what your audience needs to know

Getting the level of detail right is tricky. Too much detail is overwhelming and confusing, too little leaves people uninformed and unable to act. Make a list of the things that your audience needs from this information if it is to achieve its objective. Don't include a lot of extra information just for their interest. Just tell them what they need to know (and, if it isn't clear, why they need to know it).  If there are things that only some people need to know about, put it in a different section and signpost to it - clearly saying who needs to look at it.

6.    Build their capability

Most of the population are never taught the skills needed to deal with a legal problem or use things like a complaints procedure effectively. Include guidance that builds your audience's ability to deal with the issue. This might include things like tips on preparing for phone calls or keeping records, suggested wording, or standard letters.

7.     Address the realities of their situation

Your audience and the issue they need to deal with don't exist in a vacuum. Their level of stress or anger will affect their ability to absorb information, complete forms, and do things like negotiate. Age, education, disability, nationality and ethnic background, and socio-economic factors, will influence their knowledge of systems, confidence in engaging with formal processes and Government agencies, and ability to access other help.

8.     Test it out

Pilot your information with members of your audience before it is finished, and use their feedback to improve it. They are the only people that will be able to tell you which bits they didn't understand,  if you answered all their questions, if they found something off-putting, or if they stopped reading or watching because they were too confused or stressed.

9.      Choose the right language and tone

Always write in plain English, but don't feel that means you always have to be plain boring. Some groups like formal language, others don't. The language you use and tone you adopt will depend on who your target audience is, the issue you are dealing with, and what it is that you are trying to achieve. At different times it might be appropriate to use a tone that is encouraging, motivating, calming, feisty, or more conciliatory. It will often be appropriate to use a tone that makes it clear that you are on the users' side.

10.    Signpost accurately

Make sure you signpost to other help as accurately as possible. You don’t do anyone any favours by merrily sending users to services that no longer exist or are so oversubscribed they can’t get a foot in the door. Make sure your guidance is realistic about their chances of getting help, and make it clear exactly which organisation can help with what, so that they can be confident they aren’t wasting their time. For more help, see our Better Information Handbook or contact us to discuss how our training and consultancy services can help you.